It may seem out of place for a guy who spends most of his time designing custom homes and boutique commercial space for people who can afford tailor made things to have an interest in affordable housing. Perhaps its because I want my children to be able to afford to live in the community where they grew up or maybe its an outgrowth of my planning background, but about a decade ago, when I was starting my own design practice during the deepest recession of my lifetime, I started to think about & educate myself regarding the issue of affordable housing.
I had been invited to participate in a design charette* sponsored by the Seacoast Workforce Housing Coalition. I accepted because I unfortunately found myself with too much time on my hands & because people who design things just can't seem help themselves when offered an opportunity to design anything. It was only after saying yes that I asked..."So what is Workforce Housing?"
For those unfamiliar with the term, it describes housing for working people who's incomes do not allow them to be able to afford to live in the communities where they work or where they grew up. Kittery has become one of those communities. Two thirds of the households here find themselves in the category. In a town where the median household income is sixty thousand dollars a year, the average sales price for a home last spring was $420,000. This means the people who teach our kids, the policemen & women who protect us, the folks who work at our Outlet Malls and even most of the employees at the Naval Shipyard here cannot afford to live in Kittery. It means employers are reluctant to locate here, it requires us to pay higher prices for services and it even increases traffic & parking problems as employees have to commute from elsewhere. It just simply isn't what the meaning of "community" is intended to imply.
As I began to educate myself, to scour the internet for information and to participate in a number of other design charettes tackling the issue, I gained both insight & expertise. Along the way I discovered groups like the Incremental Development Alliance & Strong Towns who have informed my thinking about development economics & community finances. My time on the Kittery Planning Board, Comprehensive Plan & Economic Development committees has educated me about both the opportunities and the hurdles to be surmounted regarding affordable housing in the place I call home.
My mother used to say to be careful about getting good at anything you don't intend to spend a lot of time doing. With her admonition ringing in my ears, I have accepted invitations to present possible solutions to our problem at two public forums in the coming months. I look forward to sharing the results of my investigations and to helping recruit others to work together solve the problem.
I hope to share my presentations with a larger audience...hopefully I won't wait another twelve months to do so! If you follow studioB-E or me on Facebook, keep an eye out for my presentation; maybe it will help you tackle the problem where you live.
* A charette is when a bunch of people get together to solve a problem in a very short period of time. In this case it was architects, landscape architects, designers, builders, bankers, developers, community leaders & citizens spending an intense day of brainstorming ways to produce affordable housing on a specific site. Historically, the term relates to the donkey cart, called a charette, that used to wind its way around the streets of Paris collecting the projects of students at the Ecole des Beaux Art. Students would hop aboard the cart & work feverishly to finish their work before the cart passed through the gates of the school. The process became known as being "on charette."